kottke.org posts about Yitang Zhang

Unknown mathematician hits a home runMay 20 2013

Yitang Zhang, an unknown mathematician who worked at Subway while trying to find an academic position earlier in his career, has written a paper that makes significant progress towards understanding the twin prime conjecture, "one of mathematics' oldest problems".

Editors of prominent mathematics journals are used to fielding grandiose claims from obscure authors, but this paper was different. Written with crystalline clarity and a total command of the topic's current state of the art, it was evidently a serious piece of work, and the Annals editors decided to put it on the fast track.

Just three weeks later -- a blink of an eye compared to the usual pace of mathematics journals -- Zhang received the referee report on his paper.

"The main results are of the first rank," one of the referees wrote. The author had proved "a landmark theorem in the distribution of prime numbers."

Rumors swept through the mathematics community that a great advance had been made by a researcher no one seemed to know -- someone whose talents had been so overlooked after he earned his doctorate in 1992 that he had found it difficult to get an academic job, working for several years as an accountant and even in a Subway sandwich shop.

"Basically, no one knows him," said Andrew Granville, a number theorist at the Universite de Montreal. "Now, suddenly, he has proved one of the great results in the history of number theory."

Reminds me of a certain patent clerk and his theories about time and space. History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme. (via @daveg)

Update: Here's a good profile of and interview with Zhang.

Erica Klarreich, a Berkeley-based science writer who has a Ph.D. in mathematics and has written about Zhang, says his proof demonstrates the remarkable balance between order and randomness within the prime numbers. "Prime numbers are anything but random -- they are completely determined," Klarreich says. "Nevertheless, they seem to behave in many respects like randomly-sprinkled numbers that eventually display all possible clumps and clusters. Zhang's work helps to put this conjectured picture of the primes on a solid footing."

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